Charles James Forbes Smith-Forbes.

British Burma and its people: being sketches of native manners, customs, and religion online

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BY CAPT. C. J. F. S. FORBES, F.R.G.S., M.R.A.S., &c.




The right of translation is reserved.








Oct. 1,1878



THE following pages owe their origin to a remark
in the Report on the Census of British Burma in
1872, page 27 :

' There are similarities of language, physical type,
and traditions, which establish an ethnical affinity
between all the races situated among the immense
sweep of mountain country, which hems in Burma
on three sides. But the evidences of this relation-
ship have never yet been compendiously collated;
and the industry, displayed in this direction by indi-
vidual officers, whose duty has brought them into
contact with one or other of the several tribes, has
not yet borne fruit in the form of a general inquiry.
A systematic examination of the dialects, or even a
scientific comparison of the vocabularies which have
already been compiled, would probably throw much
light upon their mutual relationship ; but, as it is, a

vi Preface.

great deal of the speculation on the subject is neces-
sarily guesswork.'

The first intention of the writer was to endeavour
in some degree to supply the want above alluded to,
but in a form suitable only to the pages of a scientific
journal, such as that of the Asiatic Society ; but, since
his return to Europe, he has been so much struck
with the fact that while Burma, and the Chinese
trade route through Burma, are often mentioned,
the English public, even the educated and reading
class, have as a rule the faintest possible idea of
the country, or of the people.

It is considered generally to be a part of India,
inhabited by a people only slightly differing from,
and in fact being one of, the many races of Hin-
dust&n. It may seem presumptuous to endeavour
to convey information upon some subjects, such as
Buddhism and its origin, which have been so learnedly
and completely treated of by able Orientalists, both
English and Continental ; but there are two reasons,
which seem to render it necessary for our purpose
in this little work : first, it would be impossible to
give a complete idea of Burma and the Burmese
without including a clear account of their religion,

Preface. vii

as this explains much of their character and cus-
toms ; secondly, Buddhism has not been considered,
in special connection with Burma, in books now
generally accessible to the public, although in the
opinion of the Burmese this widespread religion in
its purest form is now to be found in that countiy,
and not in China, Tibet, or even in the sacred Isle
of Ceylon.

As an instance of the want of accurate knowledge
respecting Burma, we may mention that not many
years ago, the * Illustrated London News ' named Mar-
taban, a pretty village of about 200 houses, as one of
the three great seaports of Burma, doubtless mistaking
it for the neighbouring city of Maulmain. Again, the
same generally well-informed paper, in the number
for October 21, 1876, in a description of some sketches
in Burma, contains the following : ' Pagodas erected
on square terraces, rising one above the other,
beneath which are vaults inhabited by the priests.
Near the ancient city of Paghan, which flourished
1,000 years ago, the bank of the river for a length of
eight miles is lined with remains of this quaint
architecture and sculpture. It is not known by
what nation of old times they were constructed, for

viii Preface.

Barman history is apocryphal.' This is a most
incorrect description of the Burmese pagodas ; and,
moreover, the priests, or rather monks, never live in or
under the pagodas, but in regular monasteries ; and
the builders of the temples of Paghan are well known.

A province such as British Burma, which, during
the twenty years between 1855 (that is, two years
after its annexation) and 1875-76, has increased in
annual revenue from 532,1002. to 1,527,2962.; in
its commerce from 4,856,4002. to 14,665,2862. ; and
in its population from 1,274,640 to 2,896,368 souls :
a province, which is now looked on by the commer-
cial world as the trade high-road into the vast regions
of Western China, we think deserves to be a little
better known to all classes.

Of the works which have been published on
Burma since our occupation, there are four of the
highest value. First conies Colonel Yule's magni-
ficent folio, * An Embassy to the Court of Ava ; ' but
this only records the manners and customs of the
people, as they struck the traveller in Upper Burma
during a stay of a month or so, and, interesting and
most valuable as it is, contains little allusion to our
own provinces.

Preface. ix

Dr. F. Mason's ' Burmah ; its People and Natural
Productions,' is a scientific rather than a popular
descriptive work, and is more a book of reference
than of general reading.

Bishop Bigandet's 'The Life or Legend of
Gaudama, with Annotations,' contains a clear and
almost exhaustive summary of Burman Buddhism,
but, naturally, treats of no other subject.

Lastly, Sir A. Phayre's valuable ' Histories of the
Burman Eace,' * of Arracan,' and ' of Pegu/ give
all that is known of these nations, in an historical
point of view, from their own and from foreign re-
cords ; but these are hidden away in the pages of
a scientific journal, and are, moreover, too diffuse for
the ordinary reader.

I trust, therefore, that it will be allowed, that
there is room for such a book as I have attempted.
It is offered as the result of an experience derived
from thirteen years of close intercourse with the
people of Burma, both officially and privately. How
far it will supply the want above alluded to, must be
left to the indulgent verdict of ray readers.



I. PHYSICAL GEOGRAPHY . . . . . . . 1



IV. SOCIAL LIFE AND MANNERS continued . . . . 74

VI. AMUSEMENTS . . . 135




X. BURMAN BUDDHISM . . . . . . . . . 2'.t>


INDEX . .357




BUBMA, including under this designation both the
British province and the independent Kingdom of
Burma, extends along the eastern shore of the Bay
of Bengal from the Chittagong division of Lower
Bengal to the Isthmus of Kraw. It is bounded on
the east by the Empire of Siam and the Kingdom of
Cambodia to about 21 30' N. lat., and thence to
its northernmost extremity by the Chinese province
of Yu-nan. Its northern boundary can hardly be de-
fined; it apparently runs up into an angle among
the Snowy Eanges of Eastern Tibet, in about
28 N. lat. Thence it stretches westerly, bordering
on Upper Assam, Munipur, the Lushai Hills,
and the Chittagong division of Bengal to the Naaf

Omitting the long narrow strip of mountainous


British Burma.

CH. I.

country and sea-coast which forms the Tenasserim
Province below Maulmain, British Burma may,
roughly speaking, be said to consist of three broad
mountain ranges, having outside them on the west
the seaboard province of Arracan, enbracing between
them the two great valleys of the Irrawaddy and
the Sittoung, which form south of Eangoon one
vast plain, the centre range of the three mountain
chains being shorter than are the other two.

The whole of the seaboard is exclusively British
territory; and the mighty Empire of Burma, that
once stretched from Dacca to the Gulf of Siarn, and
was, even at the commencement of the present
century, regarded by the European Powers in the
East with the feelings of wonder and fear due to
the vague and the unknown, has shrunk into an
inland State, without a single avenue or outlet for
her trade except at the will of a foreign Power.
Even within the boundaries above given, her au-
thority on the more northern, eastern, and western
frontiers is but nominal.

The division between the independent Kingdom
of Burma and the British territory is formed on the
west by the great chain of mountains that runs
down from Sylhet and Cachar, in Lower Bengal, to
Cape Negrais ; this portion is known as the Arracan
Yoma (or 'Ridge'). A stone pillar on the Kyee-

CH. I.

Physical Geography.

doling Peak of this range in 19 29' 3" N. lat., and
thence an arbitrary line, marked at certain distances
by pillars and cairns, continues to define the northern
boundary in a straight line to the range of mountains
east of the Sittoung Kiver. There the independent
State of Karennee intervenes, completing the bound-
ary between Upper Burma and the British province,
which marches on the west with the Siamese

British Burma is both naturally and geographi-
cally separated into five divisions namely, Arracan,
the Irrawaddy Valley, the Sittoung (or Sittang)
Valley, the Salween Valley, and Tenasserim. Of
these, the first three are formed by the Arracan,
Pegu, and Poungloung ranges, which traverse the
country in a north and south direction, and form
the watershed of the Irrawaddy and Sittoung Rivers.
The valleys of these two streams unite in their
southern portions into an enormous littoral plain
stretching from the southern end of the Arracan
mountains (near Cape Negrais) along the whole
coast to Martaban, at the mouth of the Salween.

The province contains politically three ' Divi-
sions,' Arracan, Pegu, and Tenasserim. The total
area is 93,664 square miles, being about 4,000 square
miles larger than Great Britain.

Of the whole, about 36,204 square miles are

B 2

British Burma.

CH. I.

cultivable, but in 1875 only 1 3,450 were actually
under cultivation.

The Arracan division consists chiefly of more
or less mountainous tracts ; and lying between the
hills and the sea is a narrow strip of country which
is intersected by a perfect labyrinth of tidal creeks
of all sizes, that afford safe navigation for the country
boats the whole length of the coast, during the
flood tides, without their ever risking the open sea.
The chief town is Akyab, which is known at home
as one of the rice ports of Burma, rice being the
chief article both of produce and export from this

The two valleys of the Irrawaddy and the
Sittoung are similar in character, though the latter
is the narrower. Both commence above the British
boundary line, the noble and fertile Irrawaddy Valley
opening out widely as it trends southward until, at
the extremity of the Pegu range (on the last spur
of which is situated the great golden pagoda of
Rangoon), it joins the Sittoung Valley, the two form-
ing the great coast plain. Both these valleys are
more or less cultivated, rice being the chief staple ;
but it is in the great plain that stretches from the
south-eastern slopes of the Arracan range to the
promontory of Martaban that the larger portion of
the enormous rice crop is raised. From the Pegu

CH. I.

Physical Geography.

division alone the annual export exceeds 570,000
tons, valued at over two-and-a-half millions sterling.

The extraordinary development of the rice trade
of Burma is a singular and interesting question.
Not to go as far back as we might, and taking only
the twelve years from 1862 to 1874, we find that the
export of rice from British Burma was in the former
of these years 284,228 tons; in the latter, 811,106
tons ; and there seems to be every sign that as fast
as Burma, with its limited population, can increase
the outturn, it will be absorbed by commerce. The
question naturally presents itself, whence arises this
enormous increase in the world's consumption of rice,
as there was twelve years ago no other source of
supply now closed, the place of which has been
occupied by Burma ?

The great Irrawaddy River (of which the sources,
though unknown, are placed in the Snowy Eange of
Eastern Tibet), after draining the great plain of
Upper Burma, enters, as it approaches the British
frontier, a narrow valley lying between the spurs of
the Arracan and Pegu ranges, and extending below
the city of Prome. Thence the mighty stream rolls
on through the widening vale, until, about ninety
miles from the sea, it bifurcates ; one branch flows to
the westward and forms the Bassein Eiver, while the
main channel in the lower part of the delta subdivides

British Burma.

CH. I.

and finally enters the sea by ten mouths. It is navi-
gable for river steamers for 840 miles from the sea;
but it is during the rainy season (or monsoon) that
it is seen in its full grandeur. The stream then rises
forty feet above its summer level, and, flooding over
the banks, presents in some places, as far as the eye
can reach, a boundless expanse of turbid waters, the
main channel of which rushes along with a velocity
of five miles an hour.

The Sittoung River, which drains the valley to
the east of the Pegu range, is very far inferior to the
Irrawaddy both in the length of its course and in its
size; but it possesses similar characteristics. Its
chief peculiarity is the great tidal wave or ' bore, 5
that renders its navigation in the lower part very
dangerous. At about forty miles from its mouth it
takes an exaggerated bend, like a gigantic (0, from
which ' it widens so rapidly into the Gulf of Marta-
ban that it is difficult to decide where the river ends
and the gulf begins. Owing to the meeting in
this gulf of the great tidal wave of the Indian
Ocean from the south-west, and the currents along
the Tenasserim coast from the south-east,' when the
spring tides make an enormous wave, the 'bore/
with a curling crest of foam/from nine to twelve feet
high, rushes up the funnel-like channel, dashes and
breaks first on one bank, then gathers" itself toge-

CH. I.

Physical Geography.

ther again, rushes on at a speed of at least twenty
miles an hour, and dashes and breaks against the
opposite side ; and woe betide boat or vessel that it
meets in its path ! Three waves succeed each other
in this manner ; the boats that have been lying shel-
tered in some side creek then push out, and are safely
and swiftly borne along upon the rushing stream.
But still accidents constantly occur, and some years
ago a whole wing of a native Sepoy regiment was
lost in this dangerous locality.

The Tenasserim division of British Burma is very
nearly equal in area to both the other divisions to-
gether; it alone contains 46,730 out of the total of
93,664 square miles. But of this area over 24,000
square miles, or more than half, are occupied by the
ramifications of several mountain chains, which con-
tain here and there a few clearings and villages of
the wild Karen tribes ; but the greater part of the
lower and all the higher ranges are pathless and
impenetrable jungle, without sign of human habit-
ation. These mountain ranges run up' into peaks,
from 3,000 to 6,000 feet high. The highest point in
British Burma is the 'Nat-Toung* Peak, which
attains an elevation of near 8,000 feet. The Tenas-
serim division touches the Shan States of Siam, to
about the latitude of Maulmain (16 25' N.), and
thence runs down the northern part of the Malayan

8 British Burma. C H. i.

Peninsula to the Isthmus of Kraw, being divided
from Siam Proper by the great mountain chain that
cuts the peninsula longitudinally into two nearly
equal halves.

The Salween River, which empties itself into the
sea at Maulmain, rivals the Irrawaddy in length but
not in importance. Owing to the rapids in its bed,
at a comparatively short distance from its mouth it
ceases to be navigable; and, as far as is known, it
flows for nearly the whole of its course through a
narrow, thickly- wooded valley, very sparsely popu-
lated by semi-savage tribes.

The great Pegu and Martaban plain forming the
sea-coast is barely above the high- water mark of
spring tides ; in some parts, in fact, the face of the
country sinks away from the river banks, until it is
actually below the level of high water. Its formation
is comparatively recent, and the coast line has in
some places advanced twelve miles within the memory
of living man, and is every year gradually stretching
itself into the shallow waters of the Martaban Gulf.
Strange to say, although the great drainage rivers
yearly bring down with them vast quantities of de-
tritus, and the whole country is flooded, the interior
plains are not in the slightest degree affected nor
silted up by it. The cause of this has been thus
graphically explained :

CH. I.

Physical Geography.

'The first showers of rain fill the numerous
" engs " or depressions scattered over the country,
and these, gradually enlarging, submerge the country
before the turbid floods of the rivers have risen to a
similar height (forty feet above their summer level).
In default of any effective drainage, the ground ad-
joining the rivers being higher than the flooded
interior, the ordinary rainfall is usually adequate to
produce this effect ; but the low land skirting the hills
receives in addition considerable though irregular
supplies through streams which, pouring out from
the hills, diffuse themselves over the country, and lose
themselves in the plains. The turbid waters of the
Irrawaddy (or other rivers) now rising, top their
banks ; but their course is soon arrested by the limpid
water of the plains, which opposes a perfect barrier
to the spread of the river water, charged with sedi-
ment, over the low country/ *

This regular and complete inundation of a whole
country from one range of hills to another, not as an
accidental occurrence, but as a yearly recurring
event, affords one of the most singular phenomena of
Burma. With the exception of high knolls standing
up here and there, and a strip of high ground at the
base of the hills, the 'whole country, fields, roads,
bridges, are under water from one to twelve feet or

1 Theobald, Geology of Pegu.

io British Burma.

CH. I.

more in depth. Boats are the only means of loco-
motion for even a few yards. You sail across the
country, ploughing through the half-submerged long
grass, piloting a way through the clumps of brush-
wood or small trees, into the streets of large agricul-
tural villages, where the cattle are seen stabled up in
the houses, sometimes twelve feet from the ground ;
the children are catching fish with lines through the
holes in the floor ; the people are going about their
everyday concerns, if it is only to borrow a cheroot
from their next-door neighbour, in canoes ; in short,
all the miseries and laughable contretemps some-
times pictured in the illustrated papers as caused by
floods in Europe may be seen with this difference,
that every one is so accustomed to them that they
never create a thought of surprise.

Though in some ways unpleasant, this heavy
monsoon is the great blessing and source of pros-
perity to British Burma. There may be too much
or too little rain in certain districts to ensure a good,
full crop, but we have no fear of famine; nothing
but an absolute blight passing .over the whole land
could produce it. The rice fields are not prepared,
as in China, Italy, and elsewhere, in terraces care-
fully levelled for irrigation ; but the grass and weeds
are raked and pulled out with a huge harrow, and
the young plants from the nurseries are set in the

CH. i. Physical Geography. i r

soft ground a foot deep in water. In a large plain
there are of course inequalities, if even of only a few
inches, in the surface, so that if the waters subside
too quickly the crops on the higher ground are more
or less injured ; if the monsoon is a late and heavy
one, the paddy plants in the low grounds are rotted
while the outturn of the higher land is increased.
In ordinary years, the high lands being first planted,
the danger on both sides is guarded against.

There are three seasons in Burma the rains,
which begin about the middle of May (sometimes in
the end of April) and cease about the middle of Oc-
tober ; the cold weather till about the middle of
February, though the really cold months are Decem-
ber, January, and February ; and the hot weather,
from February till the rains set in.

As may be supposed, during five months of almost
constant rain, the rainfall in Burma is very large, but
there is a wide difference between that of the inland
and of the littoral zones, ranging from forty inches in
the season at Thayetmyo, our west frontier military
station, to 184 inches at Maulmain, or even, in an
exceptional year, to 228 inches at the latter place.
The commencement and the end of the rains are both
unpleasant and unhealthy ; there is a great sultriness
and an oppressive electricity in the air, and fevers
are prevalent, while (except for the universal mois-

12 British Burma.

CH. I.

ture and damp) the rainy months, when the monsoon
has well set in, are pleasant.

The thermometer in July, about the middle of the
rains, ranges from 76 F. at sunrise to 84 F. at mid-
day. In May (the hottest month) the average tem-
perature in the shade at midday is 90 F. ; in
December, at the same time of day, 81 F. Of course
these approximate figures vary in different years.
The climate is equable, and there are no specially
sickly localities, excepting the dense forests upon
the mountains during and for some time after the
end of the rains. But this might be expected, and
few are called on to face this danger; and about
January, the thermometer registering 29^ F. on the
hills, the cold clears off all malaria even there.
Though free from serious maladies, the European
finds the very equability of the climate, with the ther-
mometer standing at so high a range, to be enervating
and depressing. As with a machine constantly at
work without rest or intermission, although each
part of the system may be radically sound and with-
out a flaw, the constant vibration loosens and disor-
ganises their action. To this may be added outside
the seaport towns the want of a varied and nourishing
diet for Europeans, who consequently, after some
years, without actual disease, suffer much from
weakness and nervous depression, requiring a change

CH. I.

Physical Geography.

to a bracing climate. On the question of a sanato-
rium for Europeans many proposals have been made ;
but stations on the high mountain ranges in Burma,
however pleasant in summer, would have to be
abandoned to the jungle beasts and the elements
during the rains, for not even natives could remain
to take care of the buildings, and so incredibly rapid
and luxurious is vegetation there that the very next
year a forest would have to be cleared away to find
the houses again.

The excellence of the Burman climate is, I think,
clearly shown by comparing it with that of any
other country in the same latitude. The inhabitants
of Burma are robust and healthy looking ; they attain
the average length of human life, and children espe-
cially thrive in the country. The infantile diseases
measles, chicken-pox, whooping-cough which
cause such a mortality among the young in England
exist in Burma in so mild a form as to excite little
or no apprehension. The registration returns show
that in Burma the deaths of children under five years
of age are in the proportion of 27'85 of the total
deaths at all ages, whereas in England they are 40
per cent. The percentage of children under twelve
years of age is 35*8 of the whole population. The
proportion of persons over sixty years of age to the
whole population was 4'40 according to the census

14 British Burma.

of 1872. All these facts prove that Burma is not,
as it was once considered, one of the most unhealthy
climates in the East.

Mention has been made of the great alluvial
plain which forms the southern seaboard of British
Burma. Without going too deeply into scientific
details it may be interesting to explain how this
plain, together with the three great valleys of Burma,

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Online LibraryCharles James Forbes Smith-ForbesBritish Burma and its people: being sketches of native manners, customs, and religion → online text (page 1 of 21)